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Isaac Newton and Judaism

(Credit: Sharon Cohen / National Library of Israel)

Isaac Newton (died 1727) was one of the most influential scientists of all time. He was a mathematician, physicist, astronomer, alchemist, philosopher and theologian.

The scholar Matt Goldish has written: “Philosophers and theologians during the age of the scientific revolution commonly believed that God reveals himself through both the book of Scripture and the book of nature. Both books are coy with their secrets, but they can be coaxed out by the truly wise. These secrets can never really conflict because they were written by the same author. What many take as the conflict between religion and science during that age is a later invention of the Enlightenment. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the issue was more about who had the authority to reconcile scripture with nature.”

Accordingly, Newton spent as much time and intellectual energy on Scripture as he did on nature. But he kept his scriptural work a closely guarded secret. (Note that he believed that the doctrine of the Trinity was a fraud.)

Goldish continues: “Although something was always known of Newton’s theology, it was ignored or minimized for more than two centuries. Indeed, in the early 19th century, it was explained away as being the result of some kind of mental breakdown. This attitude didn’t really change until historians began to systematically read Newton’s papers in the 20th century.”

Newton had left his papers to his family, and they sat in the family home all but unread until the end of the 19th century. At that time, his mathematical papers were donated to Cambridge, and the papers from his tenure at the Royal Mint went to the Public Record Office. But no one was interested in the voluminous collection of his theological, historical and alchemical manuscripts. In 1936, a relative who had inherited the remaining papers sold them at public auction. Most were bought by two separate parties: the famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, and a Bible scholar, Abraham Shalom Yahuda. Thus, much of the material was preserved in two collections, most being with the latter. Following his death, Yahuda’s archives—including the Newton manuscripts—were donated to the National Library of Israel.

Keynes saw that Newton was more complicated than the Enlightenment thought. Keynes wrote: “In the 18th century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists—a rationalist—one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that anyone who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up … in 1696 … can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Keynes also suggested that Newton was really “a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides.”

Here are Albert Einstein’s comments on the writings bought by Yahuda in 1936 (in a letter to Yahuda from 1940): “Newton’s writings on biblical subjects seem to me especially interesting, because they provide deep insight into the characteristic intellectual features and working methods of this important man. The divine origin of the Bible is for Newton absolutely certain—a conviction that stands in curious contrast to the critical skepticism that characterizes his attitude toward the churches. From this confidence stems the firm conviction that the seemingly obscure parts of the Bible must contain important revelations, to illuminate which one need only decipher its symbolic language. Newton seeks this decipherment—or interpretation—by means of his sharp systematic thinking, grounded on the careful use of all the sources at his disposal. While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings, therefore, allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.”

Let us examine some of what was in Yahuda’s collection. For example:

There is an essay of Newton’s which contains rules for interpreting the language and words of the Bible. The first rule, for example, deals with the symbol of “the beast” which—according to 17th-century commentators—related to political entities. Newton writes: “Thus, if any man interpret a beast to signify some great vice, this is to be rejected as his private imagination because, according to the style and tenor of the Apocalypse and of all other prophetic scriptures, a beast signifies a body politic and sometimes, a single person which heads that body, and there is no ground in scripture for any other interpretation.”

There is a manuscript titled, “Notes on the Temple.” Sharon Cohen (see below) writes that it “contains observations on what he believed to be the sacred architecture and geometry incorporated in the structure of the Temple of Solomon, as well as customs that were practiced during religious rituals.” The manuscript includes text in Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. As to Hebrew, we can see several instances in which Newton uses Hebrew script. For example, he analyzes the Hebrew root רצף. Also, the Aramaic words שמע תא and חזי תא also appear. We can also see the Hebrew phrase, “Baruch shem kevod malchuto leolam vaed.”

This manuscript also includes a diagram of the Temple. Cohen writes: “Newton saw the Jewish Temple as a model of the universe. He believed that the Temple in Jerusalem, and the courtyard surrounding it, was a model of the heliocentric solar system, with the raised altar (located in the center) representing the sun.”

In an essay “The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology,” Newton discusses the belief systems of ancient peoples which gradually degenerated into idolatry. On this topic, he read Maimonides. He owned Hilchot Avodah Zara in a 1641 translation into Latin, and made notes in it. Maimonides famously described here how early people slipped from worship of the one true God to worship of the sun, moon and stars. Newton also found this view in other philosophers of his time, who also drew upon Maimonides.

There is also a place in Newton’s writings where he makes a proposal for reform of the Julian calendar and cites a passage from Maimonides’ Hilchot Rosh Chodesh. Newton studied Jewish texts with great care in the construction of his religious works. Aside from Maimonides, the main texts he consulted were Josephus, the Mishna and Talmud and works of Kabbalah.

According to Goldish, “Newton held that … the priesthood maintained both theological and natural truths, though these were largely hidden from the masses. In particular, the priests knew that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of their universe; hence, ancient temples from Stonehenge to the Temple in Jerusalem were organized around perpetual fires that represented the sun.” The temples symbolized the solar system.


The above article was based on an article by Sharon Cohen, in the Jerusalem Post from July 2019, (“The Little Known Fascination Newton Had With the Jewish Temple,”) and an article by Matt Goldish, Jewish Review of Books (Summer 2018): “Maimonides, Stonehenge and Newton’s Obsessions.” For more on Newton and Judaism, see Goldish, “Judaism in the Theology of Sir Isaac Newton (1998).” For a work on the religious thought of Newton in general, see Rob Iliffe, “Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (2017).”

P.S. My son, Rabbi Shaya First, recently took his TABC students to the Rambam exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum, which contains manuscripts where Newton mentions Rambam.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Since the end of March 2023, he has been interested in learning more about Newton. Only his close relatives know the reason. Others will have to deduce the reason from the date.

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